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The best Photoshop alternatives in 2021

Best Photoshop alternatives
(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

There are lots of very good Photoshop alternatives, and many of them introduce efficient or inspiring ways of working that you might never have known about if you’d stuck with Photoshop.

There are some very good reasons for ditching Photoshop. Some folk just don’t like Adobe’s subscription plans, even though they are really good value for money, but there are creative reasons too. 

If you work with raw files, there are better programs than Lightroom or Photoshop for extracting the best possible quality. If you want inspiring images quickly, there are tools that can delivery a dazzling array of ‘looks’ in seconds. If you want organize a large photo library, then you’re going to need more than Photoshop for that, and if you want to apply quick, everyday photo enhancements, then Photoshop is just overkill.

So here’s our list of some top Photoshop alternatives, and some explanations about what makes them different… and better. They are not in order of merit because they each bring something different to the table, so you might want check the whole list before you make any decisions. We’ve also stuck to desktop software available on both Mac and PC. There are lots of mobile apps and web-based tools worth a look too, but we’ll tackle this with separate guides, as we’ve already got plenty to talk about here!

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

1. Affinity Photo 1.9

A direct Photoshop rival but without the subscription

Platforms: PC and Mac | Processor: Windows-based PC (64 bit), Mac with Apple M1 chip or Intel processor | RAM: 2GB minimum, 4GB recommended | Hard disk space: PC 953MB, Mac 2.8GB | Display: 1280x768 or better

All the power of Photoshop and more
Ridiculously cheap for what it does
Pretty technical right from the start
No photo cataloguing tools

If all you want is a regular in-depth photo editor with all the power of Photoshop but without the subscription, Affinity Photo is it! Don’t let the budget price fool you, because this is a seriously powerful professional image-editing tool that does everything Photoshop can, and more. If you’ve come straight from Photoshop you’ll need to spend a bit of time learning some new tools and a different interface, and Affinity Photo can get technical pretty quickly, but it’s a real powerhouse program that really can replace Photoshop.

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

2. DxO PhotoLab 4

Supreme raw processing quality and photo editing too

Platforms: PC and Mac | Processor: Intel Core® 2 or AMD Athlon™ 64 X2 or higher (Intel® Core™ i7 4th generation or better, or AMD Ryzen™ recommended), Intel® Core™ i7 4th generation or higher recommended | RAM: 8GB, 16GB recommended | Hard disk space: 4GB or more

Superb DeepPRIME noise reduction
Excellent lens corrections
Very good editing tools
You really need the pricier Elite version
Perspective corrections need DxO ViewPoint

Many photographers shoot raw files so that they can extract the maximum possible image quality later on. Unfortunately, Adobe Camera Raw, the raw processing plug-in that comes with Photoshop, is adequate rather than great at raw processing. The absolute master here is DxO PhotoLab 4 (you need the more expensive Elite version), which combines excellent lens corrections which even correct edge softness and DxO’s remarkable DeepPRIME noise reduction process. PhotoLab 4 is also a rather good non-destructive image editor, with local adjustment tools that include the Control Point technology brought in when DxO acquired the Nik Collection. For quality conscious photographers, PhotoLab knocks Photoshop into a cocked hat (sorry, Adobe).

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

3. Adobe Lightroom/Lightroom Classic

Image enhancement, organisation and processing combined

Platform: PC and Mac | Processor: Intel® or AMD processor with 64-bit support; 2 GHz or faster, Multicore Intel processor with 64-bit support | RAM: 8GB, 16GB or more recommended | Hard disk space: 2GB | Display: 1024x768, 1920x1080 or higher recommended

Seamless cataloguing and editing
Classic version comes with Photoshop
Lightroom CC uses pricey cloud storage
Good but not the best for raw processing

Photoshop is great for real in-depth technical editing, manipulation and compositing, but working with raw files means an extra processing step via Adobe Camera Raw and while it’s perfectly good at enhancing single photographs, it’s designed for a much wider audience of graphic designers, illustrators and 3D artists. This is where Lightroom can be a far more effective Photoshop alternative. It carries out almost any image adjustment easily and non-destructively, it works with raw files seamlessly alongside TIFFs and JPEGs, and it can organize and search your entire photo library. In short, Lightroom does almost everything a photographer might need, and a whole bunch of things that Photoshop doesn’t.

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

4. Capture One Pro 21

Disappointed by Lightroom? Capture One could be the one

Platforms: PC and Mac | Processor: Intel or AMD CPU with 2 cores, Intel® Core™ i3 (1st generation) or better | RAM: 8GB | Hard disk space: 10GB | Display: 1280x800, 24-bit resolution at 96dpi

Excellent raw processing
Layers based local adjustments
Sessions or catalog based workflow
Expensive compared to Lightroom

If you like the idea of Lightroom, but you aren’t so keen on the software itself, Capture One could be just what you’re looking for. It’s a great Photoshop alternative for photographers because it offers non-destructive editing and image organizing, just like Lightroom, but with superior raw processing (second only to DxO PhotoLab, in our opinion) and really good local adjustment tools based around adjustment layers and masks – you can even name your adjustment layers to remind you of the work you’ve done on each image. Capture One Pro 21 is quite expensive, but it’s available both on subscription and as a standalone purchase. If you redesigned Photoshop solely for photographers, you might get something like this.

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

5. Skylum Luminar AI

Let Skylum’s AI do the hard work so that you don’t have to

Platforms: PC and Mac | Processor: CPU Intel® Core™ i5 or better, AMD Ryzen™ 5 or better, CPU Intel® Core™ i5 or better | RAM: 8GB, 16GB or more recommended | Hard disk space: 10GB | Display: 1280x768 or larger

Some amazing AI effects
Very good portrait enhancements
Templates ('looks') not that varied
Dumbed down compared to Luminar 4

Photoshop can do the most amazing things… if you know how. But it often requires a great deal of experience, skill and time, and for many creators today it’s more important to invest time elsewhere – like taking pictures, for example! Skylum Luminar AI uses machine learning and AI techniques to automate many of the tasks that traditionally have taken a lot of manual effort, such as selective editing in different parts of a scene, replacing skies in landscapes and enhancing portraits quickly but sympathetically. If you are an absolute technophobe, then Luminar AI could be just the ‘magic dust’ you’re looking for. It’s a million miles from Photoshop, but for inspiration-hungry content creators, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Fun-filled all-in-one program that’s packed with ideas

Platforms: PC and Mac | Processor: Intel Core™ i-series or AMD Phenom® II and above | RAM: 4GB | Hard disk space: 2GB | Display: 1024x768

All-in-one organisation and editing
Some neat visual effects
A bit of a closed system
For amateurs rather than experts

Often overlooked in photo editor comparisons, PhotoDirector 12 is actually rather good. It combines Lightroom-style non-destructive editing and organizing with fancy image enhancement tricks that would normally need a dedicated image editor. Skylum clearly started something with its AI sky replacement, because PhotoDirector now offers too (as does Adobe, in its latest Photoshop update), alongside a host of other image effects like Glitch Art, Dispersion, Bokeh effects and more. PhotoDirector is aimed more at keen amateurs and experimenters than pros, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The Cyberlink site will try to push you towards a PhotoDirector 365 subscription, but if you click on the payment options you’ll find you can still get a perpetual (one-off) license.

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

7. ON1 Photo RAW 2021

Powerful all-in-one program that does almost everything

Platforms: PC and Mac | Processor: Intel Core i5, Xeon, or better | RAM: 8GB, 16GB+ recommended | Hard disk space: 1.5GB | Display: 1280x800, 1920x1080 recommended

One program that does almost everything
Great library of preset effects
Small text and a crowded interface!
Options can get confusing

ON1 Photo RAW 2021 is often cruelly overlooked as a Photoshop alternative, but has a scope way, way wider than Photoshop’s. It integrates image cataloguing and search tools with seamless non-destructive raw processing and local adjustments, with portrait enhancement tools and integrated layers management for Photoshop style composites. That’s not all. There’s also an Effects panel and a large library of effects presets which can give you whole new ideas about what your images could look like – and then apply them with a single mouse click. Currently available both as a standalone purchase and on subscription, ON1 Photo Raw is just the most amazing value. It has about 80% of the depth of Photoshop but about 1,000% of the width. If that makes sense.

(Image credit: Rod Lawton/Digital Camera World)

8. Exposure X6

Analog film fans may just have found their forever home

Platforms: PC and Mac | Processor: Intel Core 2 processor or newer | RAM: 8GB, 16GB recommended | Display: 1280x768 or better

Excellent catalog of analog effects
Clear, no-nonsense interface
Cataloguing and non-destructive editing
A little pricier than others
Raw processing could be better

The problem with Photoshop is not that it can’t do what you want. If you can imagine it, Photoshop can do it. The problem is the imagining part, especially when it comes to analog film effects. This is where Exposure X6 steps in, with a beautiful library of analog film effects you can even ‘audition’, live on the screen, six at a time, all created with a clear and efficient set of non-destructive tools. These include regular image enhancements and adjustments – Exposure X6 is great as a regular photo editor – but also bokeh effects, light leaks, film grain, borders and textures. Exposure X6 even incorporates its own image cataloguing and browsing system. You can create atmospheric and evocative images in Photoshop too, but Exposure X6 is on your side, while Photoshop isn’t bothered one way or the other.

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